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Holograms could soon give virtual meetings new life

February 25, 2011 | Kendal Kirby

By Roger Yu via USA Today

Developers of holographic display are working on a technology that will let speakers and performers deliver speeches and entertain an audience without being there. They'll do it via hologram video projection, in which a filmed performance is presented in a live, 3-D image -- like Princess Leia's message to Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

In January, the music group Black Eyed Peas performed holographically at an awards show in France. Two small airports in Britain -- Manchester and London Luton-- have holographic images of staffers explaining security clearance rules. Others to appear via hologram technology in recent years: Former vice president Al Gore, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and British airline and media mogul Richard Branson.

The technology is the latest step in the "telepresence" evolution that's changing the meetings and conventions industry.
Evolving technology

Presenting holographic images of static objects isn't new. But several companies -- including Britain-based Musion, Austin-based Zebra Imaging, Hungary-based Holografika and a collaborative venture between researchers from the University of Arizona and California-based Nitto Denko Technical -- have begun developing a technology to project live images that are streamed through the Internet for 3-D viewing without the need for 3-D glasses.

The technology is in its infancy and has limitations, including high cost and elaborate setup. Musion says a simple setup can cost $20,000 to $30,000, which is more than a first-class round-trip airline ticket for a live appearance.

But its potential has intrigued industries that could benefit from high-end, interactive display, ranging from medicine to education, as well as keynote convention speakers, concert-givers and even online dating services.

"It's the holy grail of display technology," says Corbin Hall, a meetings technology analyst. "But for now, it's going to be just for real high-end (events). It's definitely not mainstream."

In 2006, Musion helped Madonna produce a performance at the Grammy Awards, in which she sang with holographic cartoon images. After the program, several companies, including Cadillac and GE, contacted Musion, wondering if the technology could be applied in corporate settings, says Ian O'Connell of Musion.

Its work also caught the attention of Cisco System, which has been looking to expand its videoconferencing business. Musion was in talks with Cisco on the technology and helped develop an event in Bangalore, where Cisco CEO John Chambers spoke to holographic images on stage of executives who were in California. Cisco says it's studying the technology but is "not at the stage of having a (commercial) product in a meaningful volume," says spokesman Marc Musgrove.

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